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Why All the Best Heroes Are Called Jack

Jack as an archetype originated in Cornwall, but may have German roots originally. He's a stock character appearing in nursery rhymes and fairy tales dating back hundreds (potentially thousands) of years.

Ever noticed that an alarming number of hero types are called Jack?

Or John?

Jack and John.

Two of television's most popular franchises, Stargate, and Lost, both feature as their leads a hero called Jack and a hero called John. In Stargate SG1 we have Jack O'Neill and on Stargate Atlantis we have John Sheppard (Sheppard/Shephard are common hero surnames due to the inherent association with flocking and leadership). In Lost we have Jack Shephard (see what I mean?) and John Locke.


I think not.

Need proof?

JACK Baur, JACK Frost, JACK Ryan, JACK Burton, JACK Skellington, JACK Grimaldi, JACK Colton, JACK and the Beanstalk, JACK Traven, JACK Torrence, JACK Sparrow, JACK Slater... and those are just the Jacks I could think of while drinking my morning cup of Vanilla Chai.

Why do we feel the need to bestow the name Jack upon on so many heroes?

For that matter, why are John Does called JOHN Doe?

Let me lay it out for you...

Jack, the Archetype

An archetype is a typical example of a person or object. If you want to get Jungian on the subject (I'm partial to a bit of Carl Jung), it is a primitive mental image that has been inherited from our earliest human ancestors.

Jack as an archetype originated in Cornwall, but may have German roots originally. He's a stock character appearing in nursery rhymes and fairy tales dating back hundreds (potentially thousands) of years. Jack is usually a young adult and a bit of a trickster. He's cunning and quick, but often lazy and/or an idiot, yet usually the hero and almost always victorious. As an archetype, Jack is closely linked to the heroic archetype John (you know, good old John Smith, handsome, courageous, slightly clueless). Both Jack and John can be found going by a different name (Iván in Russia, and Hans/Hänsel in Germany) in other cultures. Jack is also found in America, where Appalachian folklore depicts him in much the same manner.

The Jack and John archetypes are likely the origin of this trend in naming our heroes Jack and John.

John Doe

If you're as obsessed with police procedural dramas and murder mysteries as I am you've likely wondered why unidentified men are called 'John Doe'. The John Doe (and for the ladies, Jane Doe) custom dates back to a rather odd (now defunct) legal process in England known as an action of ejectment. Under the old common law landowners were often confounded by their legal options where tenants who had defaulted on their rent, and squatters were concerned. The laws were technical and convoluted to the point of being little use (especially if you weren't well educated). To get around this, landlords brought before the court an action of ejection on behalf of a fake tenant, against another made up person, who had supposedly rousted the rightful tenant from their property. The court would then determine the rights of the fictitious tenant, and in so doing ascertain that the landlord owned the property. This was all the landlord needed - a court judgement that they were the owner of the property - solving their problem without the trouble of bringing complicated legal actions against the real people they wanted to evict.

Landlords frequently named their fictitious tenants John Doe. Although we have no record of the first instance of this, it almost certainly began because it was a very common name. As such, John Doe became a universal name of sorts.

If you're wondering, Hans is an incredibly common German name, while Iván is equally common in Russia.

The Every Man

I mentioned that Jack and John are 'universal' names in the sense they are used as place markers when true names don't exist or are unknown. The Every Man is an extension of this, the notion that a particular character could be anyone. The Every Man is a particularly useful device to employ when writing heroes. You want your heroes to be heroic, but you also want people to identify with them. This is often difficult to achieve when they are gadding about getting up to all sorts of heroism.

If heroism was common it wouldn't be heroic.

The majority of people will never do the things heroes get up to.

So how do you get them to relate to characters who do such spectacular things?

You make your hero an Every Man.

Give them a boring job. Make them bad with women. Build into them characteristics that are familiar to the majority of people, so that despite the heroics, they are easy to identify with.

The fastest, easiest way of achieving this is to give your character a name normal, innocuous, very familiar name. A name already intimately associated with the Every Man.

A name like Jack.

Or John.

These are not only very common names but, as we've established, hold a special place in the psyche of anyone who has grown up on English stories. Just as anyone growing up on German stories is familiar with Hans, and anyone reared on Russian literature is very familiar with Iván. Jack, the archetype, isn't a hero. In many ways, he's an anti-hero. He's just a normal guy who wants to do things his way with the least amount of effort possible.

And who doesn't relate to that?

A lot of people relate to the anti-hero far more easily than they do the hero.

Case in point: Luke Skywalker or HAN Solo?

Hans wins every time. Why? Because he's an Every Man!

The fact that we are already so familiar with the Jack archetype - even if only on a subconscious level - means the very name conjures certain images and emotions in us. So much so that you can have the most heroic man doing the most impossible feats and acting in an outlandish and/or chivalrous manner, and people will still relate to the character strongly if his name is Jack (or John).

So, the next time you're trying to figure out how to make your larger-than-life hero relatable, throw some normality in the mix. Try them with a common name, something that makes people feel your hero (or heroine!) could you anyone.

A name like Jack.

All the best heroes are called Jack.